The hour was growing late, and though the candle had been a new one when Tarlanc began his tale, more than half of the wax had been consumed. As he rose to his feet and straightened his back to ease his aching muscles, he coughed noisily and cracked his knuckles, popping them so loudly that Elfhild was startled by the sound.
"Well, lasses, there is more to my tale if you would care to hear it, but at this present moment, I have a call of nature which I must answer. I shall not tarry long, and to ease any worries you might have at being left alone, Haun will stay here to guard you." With a nod of his head and a "stay, sir," to the mastiff, Tarlanc walked away into the woods.
When he came back, he generously lubricated his throat with wine - a necessity after speaking so long, he told the twins. Then the old miller settled back onto the blankets and resumed his tale. "Elffled and Elfhild, the late summer sun shone down warm and pleasant, and I soon fell asleep behind my fortress of green hedge. I slept there undisturbed for several hours until I was awakened by the clip-clopping of hooves and the rumble of wheels. The Randirrim! As the caravan journeyed by, I hid behind the wall of hedge and furtively peeked out, watching in fascination as the merry vagabonds passed by only a few feet from my face.
"Hardly had the Randirrim passed my hiding place than I heard galloping hooves pounding down the road. Sure enough, as I had supposed betimes, the riders proved to be my father, my brothers, and three of my father's good friends. They were frantically whipping and kicking their horses as though they were escaping from Angband of old!" Remembering the scene in his mind, Tarlanc halted in his storytelling and looked over to Sparrow and Mithril. The two mounts were obviously unimpressed with his story, for they had gone to sleep on their feet.
"What happened next?" Elffled asked eagerly, her eyes glowing with excitement. "Did your father find you?"
"I am coming to that, lass." Tarlanc again filled his pipe and lit it, leaning back and drawing in a mouthful of the pungent smoke. The wineskin now rested against the side of his thigh, where he could easily reach it. Some time before, the girls had decided that wine was too heady a draught for them, since all they were accustomed to was the weak beer and ale brewed by peasants.
"My gaze followed the line of green hedge which stretched westward along one side of the road. The hedge was like a fence, both marking the boundary of some lord's property and keeping his livestock from straying into the lands of his neighbors. For me, it was both a protection and a guide, and as I set out along the hedge, my heart was light and I whistled as I walked. I had covered nearly three furlongs when the hedge made a sharp right angle and disappeared over a low knoll to the north. Parting the close growing branches, I peered between them to see what lay to the other side. All my good spirits left me when I beheld that as far as I could see there was nothing but open fields! Unless I should somehow turn into a hare or a crawling adder and disappear into the tall grass, there was no place to hide from those who were looking for me! Disheartened, I sat with my head between my hands and pondered what I should do."
"So what did you do?" asked Elfhild, hanging onto every word he said.
"Why, lass, since I am not a wizard who could turn into a hare or serpent, I did nothing but sit there!" The old man laughed. "The afternoon Sun no longer seemed like such a warm and generous friend, but rather an enemy, who baked me with her harsh rays." Tarlanc leaned over and emptied his pipe on the ground, then refilled the bowl and put the fire to it once again.
"I had only about a third of a loaf of bread and two apples left of the provisions that I had brought with me. Since my stomach was grumbling with hunger, I finished the bread, but forestalled eating the apples until I could no longer endure my hunger. Having decided that I could not leave my place of refuge until nightfall, I lay down, planning to take a nap. Then I heard the sound of hoof beats and the jingling of bits. I peeped through the hedge and there were my father, his friends, and my brothers riding up the road in the direction of our village. Their heads bowed, their shoulders slumped, they looked completely dispirited. I was elated! I was sure that they had given up the search for me, at least for the time."
Elffled leaned closer to the old miller, completely engrossed with the tale and not wanting to miss a word of it. "I do hope that you escaped, for I know that your father would have thrashed you severely had he caught you!"
"I was not about to let him find me," Tarlanc chuckled. "Though the wounds from the previous beating had healed, there were scars and memories which would serve as reminders. I was determined that he would never have the opportunity to whip me again. As quiet as the cat when it stalks its prey, I waited another fifteen minutes, listening to the hoof beats gradually dwindle away. Then I was on my feet, taking out the knife at my belt to widen a small gap in the hedge. That task accomplished, I broke into a trot and put as much distance between my father and myself as I possibly could.
"The darkness had fallen when I saw the welcome lights of the Randirric camp far down the road and off to the left." Tarlanc drew on his pipe and puffed out a curling ring of smoke. "I fear you lasses will become tired of hearing my tale. Therefore, I will keep the telling of it as short as I can, for if I told you all, we might be here some days."
The sisters giggled, and then Elfhild spoke up. "That is the way is it with all engrossing tales. With the good ones, the truly good ones, there is never enough time to tell the whole story. Perhaps someday you will relate to us the complete version of yours."
"Perhaps, lass," Tarlanc nodded his head, "but for now I will confine myself to speaking of the major events which happened during my time with the Randirrim. You should know that back before my father forbade me to visit them, I had made friends with two lads of my own age, brothers, Pere and Meri, who were twins, just like you two. They had introduced me to their father, Wedri, who was one of the leaders of their tribe, and his wife, Ahãma, and also their sister, Tabahaza, a girl who was a bit younger than me." His voice taking on a soft, tender tone, Tarlanc hesitated for a few moments before clearing his throat and resuming his regular manner of speaking.
"As I was saying, night had fallen when my weary footsteps took me into the outskirts of their camp. There, I was halted by a young man who was serving his term as night guard. He led me to the wain of Wedri and Ahãma, who were sitting outside around the campfire. Suspended above the fire was a bubbling pot of stew, and the fragrant spicy smell made my mouth water. All that summer, I had eaten no decent food, living on nothing but bread and water, and that day I had to be content with stale bread and two apples. Soon, Ahãma had placed a bowl of stew and a chunk of black bread in my hands. It took another bowl and several pieces of bread before my stomach was finally filled. One of the best meals of my life, I might add," Tarlanc laughed, remembering the taste of the stew.
"Tarlanc," Elfhild interjected, "no food has quite the flavor as that eaten after going without. How well we know! The food you served us at your table was the first real meal we had in days, and indeed none had ever tasted finer!"
"Some meals are truly momentous and live in our memories, while others we would just as soon forget," Tarlanc nodded.
"Please go on," Elffled urged. "With this talk of food, I find I am becoming hungry again!"
"Elffled," the old man smiled, "the two of you packed an abundance of provender, bringing all the bread that I had baked, a goodly portion of dried meat and fruit, honey, jam, spices, salt, beans and lentils. Go to the pack and help yourselves to whatever you might fancy!"
"Might I bring either of the two of you something?" Rising to her feet, Elffled brushed off her skirt and looked down at Tarlanc and then to her sister.
"Nothing for me. I am too eager to hear this story and am not thinking about food," Elfhild replied while Tarlanc asked for some dried beef, a piece of bread and a spoonful of jam. Elffled was soon back with the requested items and looked eagerly to the old miller while he slowly chewed his food.
"Strength to continue," he grinned. "Now where was I?"
"You had just eaten two bowls of stew," Elfhild reminded him.
"Ah, yes. One of the best meals of my life - but I already told you that. After I had finished eating, Wedri and Ahãma, their dark eyes sparkling with the reflection of the fire, glanced at each other and then at me. A stern look upon his face, Wedri demanded to know why I was following their caravan. I informed him of all that had befallen me, and asked him to show a poor boy kindness.
"'So, lad, you have run away in fear of your father and have come to us seeking protection.' Wedri looked at me critically. 'There is no place for you in our camp, and you are not welcome here. You are a foreigner and not of our blood. The matter is concluded. Leave now and go your way in peace!'
"His wife, a very beautiful woman with kind dark eyes, long sable hair, tawny skin, and the whitest teeth I have ever seen, shook her head and frowned. 'No, Wedri, he is only a youth! Let him stay!'
"'It is impossible,' he glared back at her, and then began speaking in what I later learned was the ancient tongue of the Randirrim. They began to argue loudly, with much furious head shaking, finger pointing, arm waving and shaking of fists by both of them. His dark face was infused with so much angry blood that it seemed almost black. Her eyes flashed angrily, sparkling like faceted jewels in the firelight, punishing him with her fierce gaze. Other times, she would turn away from him in disgust or look up to heaven in frustration. Each one was so angry that I thought they might come to blows. Finally their voices lowered, and Wedri rose to his feet. Without looking at his wife, he spat into the fire in disgust and stomped away.
"'Should I leave?' I asked, turning to Ahãma. 'It seems apparent that your husband does not want me to remain.'
"'He means nothing, so do not pay attention to him! He just likes to argue!' Her voice irritated, she waved her hands in the air. 'I talked him into letting you stay, but be on your best behavior, Gondorian, and try to keep out of his way for a few days. You will do fine,' she told me in a softer tone as she took my hand, turned it over and glanced at my palm. 'Calluses,' she chuckled. 'You have worked hard.' Turning to Pere and Meri, she told them, 'Burn his clothes and fetch some of your own for him to wear. Since his father might come back looking for him, he will ride in our wain by day, venturing out only by night.'
"Later in the family's wain, the brothers donated some of their old clothes to me, which, though serviceable, were far more flamboyant and gaudy than any Gondorian would ever consider wearing. After I had put on their clothing - a pair of baggy blue trousers and a very good pair of black leather boots from Pere; a bright yellow and white striped shirt, a black embroidered vest, and a dilapidated hat decorated with colorful crocheted circles from Meri - I stood for their inspection, thinking to myself that I needed only a floppy cap adorned with bells to resemble a jester.
"'How do I look?' I asked dubiously.
"'Oh, I would say that you are... impressive,' Pere remarked as he walked around me.
"'Quite handsome,' Meri agreed. 'The girls will think he is quite the marvelous young bull.'
"I am not dressing like this to impress the girls. I just want to fit in amongst you!' I replied, becoming irritated at what they said.
"Pere put his arm around my shoulder. 'You can never do that, my friend, but if you stay quiet amongst strangers, possibly you will evade detection. Perhaps you can pretend to be a mute.'
"Meri walked over and slapped me on the back. 'Yes, a mute! Then you will blend right in!'
"So that is how I joined the Randirrim." Tarlanc reached his hand down to pat Haun on his head as the mastiff groaned in his sleep. "I doubt very much that you girls know anything about these wanderers, but I will tell you that once you have been able to gain their confidence, there are no people any finer or more noble.
"During that first week with them, I remained hidden in the wain by day, hating the confinement and rejoicing when at last my freedom arrived. I should not complain too much of my seclusion, though, for in the evening, many of the tribe would gather around a large campfire. There, they sat around the fire, singing, laughing, joking, exchanging tales, and watching the dancing of the lovely dark-eyed girls and the handsome young men." Tarlanc's eyes grew moist as the memories surged through his mind.
"By the end of the week, I was no longer required to remain in the tent by day. Wedri, though, still spoke little to me and was only grudgingly tolerating my presence. As Ahãma had advised me, I kept out of his way as much as possible. Meri and Pere had accepted me as a comrade, enjoying teasing me far too much, I thought. Ahãma would talk to me sometimes at the supper meal and seemed to be growing fond of me. Tabahaza, a shy girl, seldom spoke to me, keeping mostly with either her mother or with the other young girls of the tribe. I did think several times that I caught her looking at me from under her long dark eyelashes, but whenever I looked at her, she would turn away.
"Wedri was a blacksmith by trade and he had taught his sons that skill, beginning when they were young boys. Soon after I had arrived with them, Wedri informed me that if I wanted to stay, I must be able to carry my own weight. Suggesting to him that perhaps he might teach me the skills of a farrier, my pride was stung when he looked me over as though I had green skin. 'I have no time to be bothered with an ignorant foreigner!' Spitting out a long stream of spittle on the ground, he laughed uproariously. When his laughter had spent its course, he told me that if his sons had enough patience to deal with a stupid oaf, that I could help them with their tasks.
"When I talked to Meri and Pere later, they raised my spirits by convincing me that they were certain that their father would relent sooner or later. In the meantime, they said they were delighted to have me. I soon understood what they meant when they took their ease, lounging about and watching me as I fed and watered the family horses."
"'Tarlanc, you have a natural gift with horses.' I caught Meri's surreptitious wink at Pere.
"'Indeed he does. The horses have certainly taken to him,' Pere grinned.
"'Aye, brother. Now that he has finished that, what do you say we allow him to fetch the water for the cooking and drinking? He is such a big, strong fellow.'
"'A superb idea, and after he completes that task, I am sure we can find something else for him to do.' With knowing looks at each other, the brothers kept me well occupied until suppertime.
"Covering twenty miles over the next two days, the caravan finally made camp at the next village, which had been built along the side of the Great West Road. Before my taskmasters had a chance to set me to work caring for the horses that evening, Ahãma walked over to me and led me aside. She took my hand in her light brown one, looked into my face with those deep, soul-reaching eyes, and told me in a sad voice that her brother Warasija had become ill during the day. If only I could help his wife and young son set up their tent, she would be in my debt. When I looked into those luminous dark eyes of hers, I could have denied her nothing. Pere and Meri were silent, but from the crestfallen expressions upon their faces, I could tell that they were disappointed that they had lost me as their horse tender.
"When I returned to my own wagon, Wedri was waiting outside the wain. 'You, foreign boy,' he pointed a thumb at me, 'I maybe now give you a chance, if you are not too weak to do it. In the morning, you will assist my sons in moving my supplies from my forge wagon and help them set up the equipment.' Though his face was frowning and his voice was little more than a deep, low growl, I sensed that perhaps he was finally taking my measure and did not find me so lacking as he had first suspected. Still, he wrinkled his nose as though some excrement had offended his nostrils. Shrugging his shoulders, he looked at me before turning and stalking back to the campfire. I bowed in respect as he passed.
"Wedri owned a portable forge which he transported in a small cart pulled by two horses. Besides the bellows, anvil, and coal box, there were kegs of horseshoes and nails, chests containing spare parts for the wains, hardware for harnesses, hammers, pincers, rasps and shoeing knives, water buckets, and all the other necessary tools used in blacksmithing. When the forge was set up the next morning, it was my job to keep it supplied with coal. The morning was a warm one, and whenever I wiped my brow, I would smear coal dust all over my face. With a sense of amusement, I thought of how this was a perfect disguise, for I doubted that even my mother could recognize me under the thick layer of grime.
"We stayed in that village for two weeks and then traveled southward. By the middle of September, the caravan had reached Minas Tirith. The city was a regular stopping point in the spring on the Randirrim's trek northward and then again on the return to the south in the autumn. Being a village youth, I marveled at the sight of the great city and gawked like any bumpkin when Meri and Pere showed me the sights." With a faraway look on his face, Tarlanc halted in the telling of his tale and tapped his fingers on his knee. "Minas Tirith, great city, the world lost an irreplaceable gem when it fell. Now serpents and lizards tread the streets where once walked fine lords and beautiful ladies." He sighed heavily and then continued.
"Although its people lived in perpetual dread and trepidation of the Dark Enemy who lives on the other side of the Mountains of Shadow, and though they often looked more to the past than the present, still at that time the capital was a magnificent place. Upon my first sight of the famed city, I was in awe of the strong white walls and the Citadel, the gleaming spire pointing to heaven. Knowing how Meri and Pere loved to torment me, I kept my excitement to myself, remarking indifferently that perhaps we might enter the city gates.
"'Yes, do that will you?' Pere's merry voice answered. 'You think you are quite the strong fellow.'
"'We will wait right here and watch you.' Meri exchanged a mischievous glance with his twin.
"'All right, you two, out with it! I know you well enough by now that there is something up your sleeves!' I demanded, becoming impatient with them for I knew that they were planning one of their jokes.
"'Oh, nothing,' Pere looked up at the Tower, 'only that the people here have a low opinion of us, and if you go inside the city, you will find your welcome will be unenthusiastic.'
"'Aye, rather cool I might add,' came Meri's cheerful voice matter-of-factly. 'They think we are thieves.'
"'And are you?' I questioned, wondering what would be their reply.
"'Only the best,' Pere replied, smiling.
"'We are Randirrim after all. It is a tradition. We would never want to disappoint anyone. If we did not steal something, our reputation would be destroyed,' Mere added smugly in a boastful, arrogant voice as he gazed at the tops of the buildings on the highest hill.
"'Why do you not just walk in right now and steal something?' I challenged, never believing for an instant that they would.
"'All right,' Pere shrugged his shoulders. 'We will, but you wait here. We cannot have a foreign boy, a novice who knows nothing, tagging along and jeopardizing our chances. You would probably get caught.'
"I watched as they walked boldly through the open city gates and waved at the guards. The men gave them disapproving glances in return but still allowed them to pass through. Waiting for about an hour, I began to fear that they had been caught in their thieving when I saw them ambling back through the city gates. Meri gave the guards such a flashing white-toothed smile that one of them had to catch himself before he smiled back.
"'I see you were not successful,' I commented smugly.
"'Not at all,' Meri answered. 'You will see when we return to camp.'
"When we had gained the safety of the wain, Pere drew a fine dagger with its sheath from under his tunic and placed it upon the table. 'I am not done yet. There is more. Do not be so impatient.' Then to my amazed eyes, he brought out a bolt of cotton fabric. 'Mother has been needing a new dress,' he explained. 'Now, Meri, can you do better?'
"'Certainly,' he replied disdainfully as he took out a dagger of equal worth, then added a finely woven woolen dress, two shirts and a pair of breeches to the collection. 'When the merchant was seeing to another customer, I slipped the goods into my tunic. He never suspected a thing,' he explained proudly. 'If Mother or Tabahaza does not want the dress, they can always sell it next spring when we return to Harad.' They both grinned at me, their pearly teeth flashing in the light of the lamp on the wall.
"Lasses, though the city was extraordinary, I was always hesitant about entering it with my disreputable friends. Before we at last left for the South, we finally reached an agreement. I would wait at the doorway of the shops while they went inside to conduct their chicanery. Always I feared that at any moment that a merchant would find them out and report them to the guards.
"When night brought the cessation of all labor and I lay upon my bedroll upon the ground and looked at the stars, I thought how strange had been my first day at Minas Tirith, that great city which is now fallen. The next day, I turned fifteen far from my family and all that I had known, living among strangers and learning the artful skill of thieving."
Gypsy Caravan, Artist Unknown
The Gypsy Beggar by A. C. Brentano
The Gypsy Rico by Gustav Doré